Henry Roth was 28 when he wrote Call It Sleep. He did not publish another novel for sixty years.
The novel depicts the Jewish immigrant life from the eyes of a very young boy before the outbreak of the First World War, in the slums of the Lower East side, New York, an area densely populated by impoverished, semiliterate immigrants who led hand to mouth existence by doing manual labours. But the novel is a lot more than just a chronicle of the Lower East Side’s squalor. As Alfred Kazin observed, it interweaves a number of taboos—religious, sexual, cellar and gutter—that makes it a work of great art.
The protagonist of the novel is a young boy—David Schearl, who lives with his mother, Genya, and father, Albert. Albert is a bitter, unhappy man of violent temper, who is prone to read hidden demeaning messages and take offence at the innocuous remarks and gestures of others, where none is intended. ‘They look at me crookedly, with mockery in their eyes!’ he complains. ‘How much can a man endure?’ The reasons behind Albert’s rancour, which borders on misanthropy, are never fully explained till almost the end of the novel, and even then the reader is left with the feeling that the explanation is only a part of the jigsaw. David, whom Albert seems to hate with a passion—the explanation comes only towards the end—, bears the brunt of his father’s ugly temper. Albert has shades of the violent father in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. The little boy is passionately loved and fiercely protected by his mother. The shy, introverted little boy has few friends. He is frequently bullied by urchins in his neighbourhood, and is solely and intensely dependent on his mother for meaningful human contact as well as inner growth. The relationship amongst the three individuals in this unhappy household is very Freudian: the son seems to have replaced the father in his mother’s affection; the father is excluded, or has excluded himself, from the close bond the mother and son share. Having realised that he has become emotionally otiose the father can only make his presence felt by violent displays of his temper. The newly immigrant family is striking it out in the ‘Golden Land’, uneasily, not least because of Albert’s inability to stick it out with jobs he dislikes.
The novel is divided into four sections. The first section, appropriately titled ‘The Cellar’, deals with the darker elements of life—aggressive and sexual. There is, in fact, a palpable sexual tension—one of its many strands—throughout the novel. David observes early that his mother is attractive to a ‘fellow countryman’ of his father who visits the household regularly, at Albert’s behest—Albert suspects nothing—, to have dinners with them, and, on one occasion, when Albert has gone out, makes a sexual proposition to Genya. David is filled with an impotent rage: he desperately wants to ask Lutar, the acquaintance, to get out, wants to physically harm him, but can do nothing other than go with his mother to their upstairs-neighbours in order to avoid meeting him, where the neighbours’ crippled daughter, a few years older than David, drags him to a closet and ‘plays bad’. David knows that he has crossed some awful threshold and is filled with self-loathing and disgust, which is compounded because he cannot confide in his mother. ‘She didn’t know as he knew how the whole world could break into million little pieces. . .’
In the fourth and last section, ‘The Rail’, David enters the house when his mother has just finished taking a bath and opens the door for him wearing just a bathrobe, which, he notices, is clung to her breasts and thighs. Later, down on the streets he hears some boys in the street bragging about how they spied on a woman taking bath, describing in graphic details what they saw—‘big tids stickin’ oud in frund . . .Big bush under duh belly . . .Fat ass . . .’—and realises that it is his mother they are talking about. ‘The rush of shame set his cheeks and ears blazing like flame before a bellows, drove blood like a plunger against the roof of his skull. He stood with feet mortised to the spot, knees sagging, quivering.’ Later, in the same section, David becomes friendly with a Polish Christen boy, Leo, and allows himself to lead him (Leo) to the house of his aunt where he (Leo) ‘plays bad’ with David’s step-cousin, Esther, in the cellar while he, David, ‘lays chickee’ (be a lookout). It is this transgression, together with the religious one—leading a goy into a Jewish household—that leads to the novel’s violent climax.
There are those who think that at its heart Call It Sleep is a religious work. The third of the book’s four section is called ‘The Coal’, a reference to a passage from Issaih, which describes the purifying touch of the fire, brought by the angels, to the prophet’s lips, and which David first hears in the ‘Cheder’, the Hebrew school he attends to learn the ‘God’s language’. The passage makes a deep impression on the young boy’s mind, and he becomes preoccupied with finding a similar spark of light in his own life—his admiration for Leo is best understood in this context. This obsession eventually, in the violent dénouement of the novel, nearly costs him his life.
The novel also vividly depicts, without descending into hysteria, the immigrant Jewish community’s anxieties about being engulfed by the all-pervasive Christianity around them. David becomes utterly fascinated by the rosary-beads which he sees in his ‘friend’ Leo’s house, and it is in receipt of this rosary that he agrees not only to lead Leo to his step-cousin’s house knowing fully well what Leo is intending to do. David is also aware that his mother, years ago, when living in the ‘Old Country’, had been infatuated with a Gentile, a church organist, and had disgraced the family. She had married Albert even though he is not ‘suitable’. Albert has a secret of his own, told to Genya by his mother, although he is not aware of it. Following the incident at his step-cousin’s house when they are ‘found out’ by his other step-cousin, in the ‘Cheder’, in what can only be described as a breathtaking leap of imagination, he tells the old Rabbi that he is only half-Jewish, an off-spring of a liaison between his mother and a church-organist, a goy; that his mother is really his aunt and his real mother had died when he was very young. The old Rabbi promptly visits the house to impart this information, which confirms his father’s worst suspicions, paving way to the climax of the novel.
A less recognized, certainly less commented upon, attribute of Call it Sleep is its humour. The novel is suffused with black humour, at its most prominent in those portions featuring the fat, irascible, ill-smelling rabbi, Yiddel (‘Little Jew’ in Yiddish), on whom Roth pours his full scorn. The descriptions of the goings-on in the ‘Cheder’ are very Dickensenian in their tone. Then there is Bertha, David’s, foul-mouthed younger aunt, who appears in the second section of the book (The Picture). Bertha, a larger than life character, is not afraid to call spade a spade and can hold her own against Albert (who hates her almost as much as he hates his own son). Bertha offers some light relief in this intense and pensive novel, and it is easy to warm up to her. Perhaps because of Bertha’s presence this section of the book is the least broody and gloomy.
Call It Sleep is also remarkable for the innovative use of language. It functions at two levels and can be called multilingual, though it isn’t, really. Exclusively set in the Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant quarter of New York, almost all the characters in the novel speak terrible English and are fluent in Yiddish. Roth, the omnipresent, unseen narrator, lets it be known that the English they speak at home is in fact translation of the Yiddish. This ‘English’, in contrast to the guttural, savage English they speak outside, for example while speaking to strangers, is splendid, almost too splendid. As Alfred Kazin observed, English, in fact, is the foreign language in this novel which is set in New York! Roth seems to have used this device to depict, almost exaggerate, the sense of terrible alienation experienced by the immigrant community; the language itself touches universal themes that transcend time.
Call it Sleep is, like all of Henry Roth’s novels, autobiographical. First published in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Call It Sleep was appreciated by critics. It was out of print for several years and its author, nursing the longest writer's block in the history of twentieth century literature, disappeared from public view. It was reissued in the 1960s. With the reissue (and critical reappraisals) the novel (and its author) made a comeback and the novel, since, has sold millions of copies (although Roth would not publish another novel for thirty more yearsTowards the end of his life, after a silence that lasted six decades, Roth published four volumes of autobiographical novels under the title Mercy of a Rude Stream. The first two volumes were published in Roth's life time while the last two were published posthumously. In it Roth follows the young boy into adolescence and early adulthood, except that he is called Ira Stigman. Last year, full fifteen years after he died came out the last Roth novel, An American Type, which takes over from where Mercy finishes and traces the life of Ira Stigman, Roth's literary alter-ego, into Depression-era America.)
Call it Sleep is many novels in one. It is a moving chronicle of the now disappeared world of the Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrant community in America in the first years of the twentieth century; it is also a compelling chronicle of the lives of the American poor; the fervidly introspective narrative has subterranean Freudian influences; and its strange and lyrical language will hold you in its thrall from beginning to end.
Call it Sleep is a modernist classic of the twentieth century, one of those novels you must read before you die.